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Entries in Thriller: A Cruel Picture [1974] (1)

Saturday
Aug132011

Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1974)

Mute Court

As rape/revenge movies go, Thriller: A Cruel Picture is pretty fantastic.

Sorry, I've always wanted to lead off a review with poster-ready hyperbole. The endorsement stands, though, as Thriller (more popularly known as They Call Her One Eye), is a surprisingly inventive and satisfying drama. Whereas most exploitation films are just boundaries-pushing calling cards, writer/director Bo Arne Vibenius uses hard-core sex and violence as window dressing for a challenging story about humiliation and humanity.

Christina Lindberg stars as Frigga, a Swedish farm girl who was rendered mute as a child following a sexual assault in the woods. Her parents send her to weekly therapy sessions in the hopes of one day restoring her speech. One afternoon, she misses the bus into town and hitches a ride with a slick stranger named Tony (Heinz Hopf). They drive into town and he convinces Frigga to have dinner with him instead of making her appointment.

Following an expensive meal, the two stop by Tony's place for a drink. He drugs her wine and pays a doctor-for-hire to inject her with high-grade heroin. Days later, Frigga wakes up to find that she's been inducted into a sex-slave ring. The charming Tony has morphed into a monstrous pimp who's forged a hateful runaway letter to Frigga's parents to cover up her disappearance. He threatens to cut off her supply of smack if she doesn't do whatever (and whomever) he says.

Frigga tries to fight back, but is overpowered and pumped full of more drugs. She viciously claws the face of her first client, prompting Tony to lay down the law by removing her left eye with a scalpel. Sporting an eye patch and a blank expression, she begins her new career as a six-days-a-week prostitute, submitting to the perverse demands of men and women alike. Frigga has Sundays free to do as she pleases, though the lure of drugs keeps her on as tight a leash as an electronic ankle bracelet.

A fellow captive named Sally (Solveig Andersson) tells Frigga about a clinic that helps people get off drugs; she's been offering her clients off-the-menu sexual favors and saving up extra cash in order to escape one day. Frigga takes this idea and puts it to better use: On Sundays, she takes her spare cash to a weapons expert, a driving instructor, a martial arts dojo, and a military academy. After several months, she embarks on a murder spree, visiting as many of her clients as she can find and then setting her sites on Tony and the upper echelon of his organization.

It's sad to say, but by today's torture-porn standards, the sex and violence in Thriller is practically PG-13. When Frigga blows holes in people with her sawed-off shotgun, squibs erupt beneath shirts like an invisible hand crushing tomatoes, but Vibenius doesn't fetishize gore. Instead, he creates beautifully twisted slow-motion ballets with the help of cinematographer Andreas Bellis and composer Ralph Lundsten. It's a bit distracting at first, as the movement slows so significantly as to make all of the characters look ridiculous while running away or falling to the floor. But the pace and eerie, pounding music elicit a feeling that is, I imagine, similar to what many trauma victims describe: horrific moments take their sweet time in registering as seconds tick by like hours.

The culmination of this amazing effect is Frigga's encounter with two policemen. Though not technically villains, Frigga sees them as obstacles on her quest for justice and beats the hell out of them with a series of beautiful chops and kicks to the face. This fight takes place in a dark warehouse; with Frigga's all-black outfit and the cops' dark uniforms, the scene relies purely on hints of light, shadow and movement to fill us in on the gruesome details. Twice, we see magnificent slow-mo blood geysers shooting out of the officers' mouths, and the arcs are so perfect that it's incredible to think they weren't digitally enhanced.

Thriller's artistry is great, but Lindberg makes the picture unforgettable. Though her face rarely registers anything but concentration and occasional contempt, her body language speaks to the bottled up rage and sadness that can only be exorcised through terrible actions. Frigga becomes a sort of Zen Terminator throughout the movie, and as she pushes further into her plan of damning atrocities, Lindberg appears to grow younger and younger--to the point where, at times, I had to remind myself that I wasn't watching a twelve-year-old girl blowing holes in people. I don't know if it was deliberate, but the effect adds an unexpected layer to the revenge plot; it's as if the scarred inner child has literally broken through the prostitute's hardened shell to join forces with the Devil.

It's easy to see why Quentin Tarantino loves this movie so much. He cites it as not only one of the roughest pictures he's ever seen, but also as an inspiration for Kill Bill. In his own way, Vibenius made a Tarantino film before Tarantino did: Thriller's heavy themes are filtered through a mash-up of violence, warped sexuality and humor that, while often disgusting, are made palatable by fascinating characters and a filmmaking style that makes art out of schlock.